Friday, December 28, 2018


Do you know the tree that is sometimes called Duck Foot?  
This week's post by Sharol Nelson-Embry tells the story of the ginkgo tree, 
an ancient tree first found in Asia.

photo by Sharol Nelson-Embry

"I love this time of year with festive yard decorations around town and ginkgo trees putting on their bright-golden, leafy finery. Walking the quiet streets of my island-city town in San Francisco Bay, to exercise the dog and stretch my legs, I admire the leathery triangular leaves waving from branches like little banners or the drifts of them on the sidewalks and streets. When my children were young, we took every opportunity to explore and play in their bounty, throwing armfuls of them up in the air to rain down over us. My children are grown and flown now, but the trees remind me of the fun of those winter days.

Ginkgo trees are amazing for more than their colorful leaves. They exist largely unchanged since the Jurassic period, when they were widespread and dinosaurs roamed the earth. The trees are termed "living fossils" and are part of the conifer family. They nearly went extinct. Their salvation can be credited to Buddhist monks who found a few surviving trees and began cultivating and spreading them throughout China, Korea and Japan. Some of the oldest specimen are found adjacent to ancient Buddhist temple sites.

photo by Sharol Nelson-Embry

Their edible nuts are considered a seasonal delicacy, though you have to put up with the noxious smell of the pulpy fruit that surrounds the ripe nut. The nuts are probably the main thing the monks were trying to perpetuate. Ginkgo trees are diecious, with separate male and female trees. Our street trees are primarily males as folks are averse to the stinky mess of the fruit borne by female trees, though I've come across a few females that somehow managing to avoid the saw.

The trees are very hardy, resistant to insects, disease, and poor air quality, part of their secret to longevity and popularity as city trees throughout the world. In Japan there are some trees that even survived the nucleur bomb in Hiroshima. It was predicted that nothing would be able to live in the bomb site for at least 75 years. The sturdy trees, though, survived and are still standing in what is now "Peace Park."

photo by Sharol Nelson-Embry

The Ginkgo is actually a mispronunciation of the Chinese word "ginyo," which means "silver apricot." German physician and botanist, Englebert Kaempfer, traveled in Japan in the 1690s and brought ginkgos to Europe. Other names for the tree include "duck foot" and maidenhair tree. Duck foot is clearly related to the shape of the leaves. Maidenhairs seems to refer to a Japanese superstition that if a young girl brushes her hair under a full moon beneath the branches of a ginkgo and thinks of her love, they will marry.

When a tree species has been around for such a long time, it's bound to gather many stories, names and superstitions. As recently as the 1970s people believed that substances in the leaves help improve memory and prevent memory loss, probably since the leaf shape resembles a cross-section of the brain. No scientific research has proven the efficacy of this belief.

John Muir said, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul." Nature instructs, heals, and inspires me. I hope you find your own connection with our beautiful natural world through the doorway of my blog:

Large Ginkgo leaf from Tokyo's Arisagawa Park      photo by Martha Slavin
Sharol Nelson-Embry is a retired naturalist in the East Bay who continues to write, explore, and also loves chocolate!

If you'd like to read more about this beautiful tree species, you can find more information here:

"Autumn Crown of Gold: Three Ancient Japanese Ginkgo Trees" by Takahashi Hiroshi

"The Symbolic Meaning of the Ginkgo Tree" by Karyn Maier

"Life Story of the Oldest Tree on Earth" by Peter Crane

Friday, December 21, 2018


courstesy of Danville Patch
At this time of year I like to take the time to sit before a warm fire, contemplate going to the movies, read a good book, draw and paint, look through old photo albums, bake something. It is also time for me to remember moments of wonder.

I started a list of times in my life when I marveled at something that was beautiful and fleeting. 

On Wednesday night, just in time to add to my list, we watched a mysterious cloud in the sky after dusk when the other clouds had lost their sunset glow. The so-called cloud made a spiraling descent and then grew larger as it came nearer. Or it could have been the other way around. A rocket? A meteor? Santa Claus? We couldn't tell. We turned on the radio to hear that Vandenburg Air Force Base had scheduled a classified rocket launch at about that time, but the launch had been canceled. Next morning the American Meteor Society declared the cloud to be a meteor. Question: if the classified rocket was launched and Vandenburg didn't want anyone to know, wouldn't a meteor be a good answer? Just asking. The Geminid meteor shower is active in the sky right now so a meteor is the most likely reason for the display. Whatever the bright cloud is, it was a moment of wonder in our world.

Here are some of the other Moments of Wonder I've experienced:

Skiing in Utah while ice crystals, sparkling like tiny stars in the sun, floated around us.

Driving along California's Highway 1 where the sky and the ocean turned silver -- all of one breath-taking piece.

Turning a corner on a narrow mountain road north of Tahoe to find a vast alpine meadow, seemingly untouched and natural, which opened up the vista to my eyes and my heart.

Standing in the eerie (man-made) light at a rest stop in the middle of one of Norway's long mountain tunnels (as long as 15 miles).

Turningmy head to find a butterfly landing on my shoulder and silently flapping its wings.

Standing still while a hummingbird, caught inside our garage, batted itself against a window -- so exhausted that it dropped to the sill, allowed me to pick it up in my hand and to take it outside where it rested awhile, then flew away with a burst of energy.

Standing in the light radiating through Chartres Cathedral's stained glass rose window while an organist filled the space with booming Bach chords.

Sitting in the restaurant at the bottom of Mt. Takeo in Japan, where in July they turn off the lights and the fireflies cover the entire place with their light.

What moments of wonder have you experienced? I hope during this season you too will find some sightings of light for your soul.

Hand-carved angel and molding in an old Norwegian church

Don't forget to send me your list of favorite books for 2018.

Friday, December 14, 2018


A windy, wet day. Leaves and bark strewn across the slick sidewalk. 

I looked down to see darker images of leaves imprinted on the wet pavement. Rust-colored smears, like patches of blood, have leached from tree bark. The marks remind me of ghost prints in printmaking. I wondered if these natural impressions inspired the first printmakers.

When I make prints from an etching plate, I can run the plate through the press a second time to get a ghost print of the image. Sometimes the ghost image is more interesting, sometimes not. To experiment pushes me look at my pre-conceived ideas in different ways.

my original design to convey movement

the final print with a ghost print under the inked-plate print.
The image now dances across the page.

Gelli plate printing, an easier printing technique than etching, can also produce ghost prints with great details. The original gelatin or hectographic plates, developed in the 1860s, were made from sheets of gelatin placed in a sheet pan. The plates were used to print ads, small quantities of newspapers, and by teachers to make copies for students. Though no longer used commercially, the gelli plate has become a great artist's tool.

Gelli Arts is one company that make gel printing plates

 It's every person's printing plate and easy to use. All you have to do is spread a small amount of acrylic paint across the plate with a brayer, scratch some designs or lay stencils on top, and then press a sheet of paper down, and pull the paper when you are done. After the first sheet is pulled, you can lay another piece of paper on the plate and pull a ghost print. Once your printed sheets are dry, you can continue to layer designs and create unique pieces.

Original print on the left with the feather acting as a stencil.
After lifting off the feather from the plate, I made the ghost print on the right.
Look at the fine detail of the feather, almost like a photograph, that is picked up by the ghost print.

While the leaf impressions on the sidewalk disappear after the pavement dries, the prints I make are a permanent record of experimentation. Ghost prints give me the chance to create something beyond my original idea.

The original print is on the bottom. The ghost print is on top.

I made a series of prints using the feather and circles as design elements. I didn't really like any of them by themselves, but when I combined them together, they became a much more interesting design using repeat patterns and colors to express construction and destruction.

YouTube has some good examples of hectograph printing. Once you go to this site you will see many other options.

Check out the library at University of Iowa, good resource for hectography:

Friday, December 7, 2018


What is a holiday without special food?

I find myself on these short, overcast days thinking of cookies and remembering the days of baking with my family in the kitchen as we mixed flour, butter, sugar, vanilla extract and eggs together, making balls of dough or rolling the dough flat to cut out cookie cutter shapes. Cardamom, a spice from India and Indonesia, added a Scandinavian flavor to the cookies. How did cardamom wind up in many Scandinavian recipes? The Vikings sailed, traded, pillaged and participated in slave trading all the way to the Far East. They returned home with many items such as spices that influenced changes in their own culture. Cardamom was one of them.

My mom made Sandbakelse, a shortbread cookie with cardamom added, every year. When my mother stopped baking Sandbakelse, no one else in our family took over the all-day task of pressing a small ball of cookie dough into 3-inch fluted tin pans, baking them in the oven until the edges turned brown, and letting them cool before carefully tapping them into her hand. Though we always savored Sandbakelse plain, other people fill the flutes with lingonberry jam or almond fillings.

My sisters and I made pepperkaker (a ginger cookie), rosettes, and krumkaker (another cardamom-flavored cookie). I include my dad in the group of holiday treat makers, not because he made cookies, but because he supervised making lefse, a Norwegian potato pancake. He heated crepe-like circles of dough on a griddle and flipped the thin pancake when brown spots appeared. He knew just when the lefse was ready. Once off the griddle, we spread a few of the lefse with either butter and jam or butter and sugar. We rolled the lefse into tight rolls, closed our eyes, opened our mouths, and tasted the first holiday treat of the year.

I don't bake often, but the holiday season creates the desire to inhale the aromas of baking cookies, to savor the warm, butter-filled lefse, and to crunch into a powdered sugar-coated rosette, which then covers my lips and tips of my fingers with fine powder to be licked off with pleasure. What a holiday treat!

Sandbakelse before baking  Photo courtesy of Fisken Fjorden

Here are two Heimdahl cookie recipes to try:

Sandbakelse, as written by my mom

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Warm the fluted tin pans.

Mix together:
1/2 cup butter
1/2  cup oleo
1 cup sugar
3 cups flour
1 egg
2 yolks
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/s almond extract

Roll into a 1-inch ball. Spread the dough inside the fluted pans, pushing the dough up the sides.
Bake for 6 1/2 minutes. Let cool before removing from pans.


Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix together in the following order:
3/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 Tbsp dark strap molasses
2 tsp baking soda
1 egg
3 1/4 cup flour
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp ginger
2-3 Tbsp water, if needed

Chill dough and roll out thin. Cut in diamond shapes.
Bake for 10 minutes.

Do you have a favorite holiday treat?